Strength for the Journey

2 Thessalonians 2:13-17

Several years ago I received a letter from Pat Williams, Senior Vice-President of the Orlando Magic (a pro basketball team in the NBA). Although I had never met Mr. Williams, I knew he was a brilliant sports executive and also a fervent Christian. He wrote to say that he was working on a book about the life of Christ and wondered if I had any thoughts that might be helpful. I jotted down a page or two of ideas and sent them to him by e-mail. Several days later he called and we had an excellent conversation. Eventually he sent me a copy of his book called How to be Like Jesus: Lessons on Following in His Footsteps. In looking through it, I came across a chapter called “How to Endure Like Jesus.” Page 237 contains a quote from German theologian Otto Dibelius, a leader of the anti-Nazi resistance movement in World War II: “God does not lead his children around hardship, but leads them straight through hardship. But he leads! And amidst the hardship, he is nearer to them than ever before.” That’s a striking way to put it. Not around hardship but straight through it.

God does not lead his children around hardship, but leads them straight through hardship. But he leads!

Several pages later Pat Williams addresses the issue of endurance head-on:

“If we want to be like Jesus, we must endure like Jesus. We need to persevere under pressure as Jesus did.” … “If it hasn’t happened already, a time will come when you must endure like Jesus.” … “No one in history deserved to be more honored and respected than Jesus of Nazareth. Yet he was treated with contempt and put to death. If we endure like Jesus, our own battle scars will be the righteous and beautiful wounds of those who have taken a courageous stand against evil. Our wounds will be like his” (pp. 250-252).

Life is a journey for all of us, and that journey is not always easy. There are hard days and difficult nights and sometimes there are weeks and months and years where the road seems to lead from one hardship to another. If we live long enough, we’ll have plenty of chances to get the battle scars Pat Williams talked about. No one gets a free ride and no one is exempt from the troubles of the world.

Sometimes when we are discouraged, we can feel like giving up and walking away from the Lord. We’re not the first generation to feel like that. Our passage ends with a prayer by Paul for the infant congregation at Thessalonica. It helps to remember that these new believers were just recently rescued from paganism. Now they were under intense pressure to leave Jesus and go back to their old life. That’s why Paul prays in verses 16-17 that they would be encouraged and stabilized by the Lord. In order to grasp the full impact of his prayer, we need to back up to verse 13. There we will find a message of encouragement that speaks to us in the 21st century.

I. A Doctrine We Need to Believe 

“But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14).

The whole system of Christian theology can be found in these verses. Everything we believe is here in tightly compressed fashion. The key phrase is “God chose you to be saved.” That speaks of the sovereign grace of God in salvation. Did you know God chose you to be saved? If he had not chosen you, you would never have been saved at all. Sometimes we speak of “finding” the Lord, but if he had not found us first, we would never have found him at all. Salvation begins with God—not with us. He chooses us—and then we believe. In putting the matter that way, I simply mean to declare that salvation is all by grace, all of God, all the time.

God is not just “making it up” as he goes along.

From Eternity to Eternity

These two verses lay out the five stages or steps in our salvation in the broadest possible sense:

1) You were loved (v. 13).
2) You were chosen (v. 13).
3) You were called (v. 14).
4) You believed the gospel (v. 14-15).
5) You share in Christ’s glory (v. 14).

In a sense, this is the whole sweep of salvation from “eternity to eternity.” There is great comfort in seeing things from this perspective. It tells us that God has a purpose in history. He’s not just “making it up” as he goes along. Everything in the universe plays a part in the outworking of God’s plan. This ought to give us enormous confidence as we face the uncertainties of life day by day. If you believe that everything in your life is a hit-and-miss affair, if you think that the events of each day just happen by chance, then you will be a prisoner to your circumstances. You’ll be up when things are good and you’ll be down when things are bad. How wonderful to rest in the knowledge that our God is working out his plan for us in everything that happens to us—the good and the bad, the positive and the negative, the happy and the sad.

Days are coming, brighter days than these, when there shall be multitudes upon multitudes brought to know the Savior.

Sometimes the doctrine of election is presented in such a way that it might lead you to think that only a few people will be saved. Someone asked me about that this week. I find myself entirely in agreement with what Charles Spurgeon, the great London preacher of the late 1800s, said.

Blessed be God, his elect on earth are to be counted by millions, I believe, and the days are coming, brighter days than these, when there shall be multitudes upon multitudes brought to know the Savior, and to rejoice in him. The Father’s love is not for a few only, but for an exceeding great company. “A great multitude, which no man could number,” will be found in Heaven. A man can reckon up to very high figures; set to work your Newtons, your mightiest calculators, and they can count great numbers, but God and God alone can tell the multitude of his redeemed. I believe there will be more in Heaven than in hell. If anyone asks me why I think so, I answer, because Christ, in everything, is to “have the pre-eminence,” and I cannot conceive how he could have the pre-eminence if there are to be more in the dominions of Satan than in Paradise.

I love how Mr. Spurgeon could look ahead from his day in London 120 years ago and see a brighter day coming when vast multitudes would come to know the Lord. I believe we are living in the beginning of those “brighter days.” And I happily say that I agree with Spurgeon in believing there will be more in heaven than in hell. I do not think that believing in divine election should produce pessimism of any kind. To the contrary, it ought to give us great hope for the conversion of those who today are far from the Lord.

“He Is Not Saved Yet”

When we asked one of the Josiah Venture missionaries if she comes from a Christian family, she replied no, but her mother has accepted Christ. Then speaking of her brother, she said, “He is not saved yet.”

Just because our loved ones are not saved today does not mean they won’t come to Christ tomorrow.

Not, “He is not saved.”
But, “He is not saved yet.”

Thus does faith work through hope. That little word “yet” makes all the difference. To say “He is not saved” is a statement of current fact. To say “He is not saved yet” brings God into the picture. You are speaking of things you have not yet seen.

I believe God honors that sort of forward-looking faith. Just because our loved ones are not saved today does not mean they won’t come to Christ tomorrow. Oh, we of little faith. As if God is stymied by man’s puny unbelief. Let us pray and believe for those who don’t know the Lord, and let us say by faith, “He is not saved yet” or “She has not come to Christ yet.”

Words matter. Say out loud what you want God to do, and then trust that he will someday turn the “yet” into glorious reality.

Death Today, Glory Tomorrow

The very best part of this is the final step in the process—sharing in his glory in the life to come. That hasn’t happened yet. Today death still reigns on planet earth. Turn on the TV and you read about war and killing and bloodshed in Iraq. Death reigns because death has not yet been destroyed. If you doubt that, check out the obituaries in the newspaper. There are lots of people going into the cemeteries, not many coming out. If you are waiting for a resurrection at the cemetery, you may have to wait a long time. Death is everywhere. It is the one appointment no one can postpone.

Your doubts are not the end of the story.

Life is hard for all of us and we all have so many questions and doubts and fears and worries. Even the best among us struggle with questions we cannot answer. So many people struggle with hurts and pains they can hardly express. It is right at this point that the gospel speaks to our deepest needs.

Your doubts are not the end of the story.
Your fears are not the end of the story.
Your worries are not the end of the story.
Your uncertainties are not the end of the story.
Your unbelief is not the end of the story.

If we suffer with him, we will reign with him. Better days are coming because Jesus rose from the dead. The grave will not have the last word. One day the children of God will exit the cemeteries once and for all. Let us be perfectly clear about it. We believe that Jesus died and rose again, therefore we have no doubts that one day the dead in Christ will rise and we will rise with them to meet the Lord in the air. Between now and then, we are living on the edge, waiting for what God has promised. It’s like a TV cliffhanger where the end of the episode says, “Come back next week to see how the story ends.” Stay tuned, child of God. The best is yet to come.

When a man understands God’s sovereignty, it puts some spizerinktum in his soul.

And all of this, the certainty of eventual victory with our risen Lord, all of it goes back to the great purposes of God that stretch across the centuries, that span the ages, that reach from eternity past to eternity future. All of it goes back to the first truth that our God is absolutely sovereign and that our salvation rests not in our own puny strength but in the mighty hands of God whose purposes cannot fail.

If you believe that God has a plan for your life, then you can find the strength to keep on going. The sovereignty of God puts iron in a man. It makes him stand up straight for God. When a man understands this truth, it puts some spizerinktum in his soul. (By the way, that’s a real word that I used to hear when I was growing up. It means something like “courage” or “gumption.”)

II. A Command We Need to Obey 

“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). The command in this verse flows directly from the doctrine of vv. 13-14. If you understand the purposes of God, then you will have every motivation to do what Paul commands.

Stand firm!
Hold on!

So many believers are jumpy, jittery, worried and uncertain. Who can blame them? If you watch too much TV, you’re bound to get jittery sooner or later. Truly, these are perilous times when both the economy and the world situation are constantly on the edge. No wonder so many people feel uncertain about the future.

In times like these, we need to stand fast on the truth of God’s sovereignty and we need to hold on to the truth written down in the Word of God. When the ground seems unsteady under your feet, remember what you have learned. Go back to the first principles.

When I turned 50, I had an epiphany of sorts, a personal revelation that surprised me. Something about that particular milestone made me stop and take stock of my life. To my chagrin I realized that I didn’t believe as much at age 50 as I did when I was 25. Back then I had just graduated from seminary and was full of knowledge, or so I thought. Seminary has a way of making you think you know more than you do. I felt like I could answer any question, no matter how complicated. Ask me, and I could offer a definite opinion even if I didn’t really know anything about it. That often happens to new seminary graduates. After all those years of studying Greek, Hebrew, theology, Bible exposition and church history, and after all those papers you write and all those late-night discussions where you argue about anything and everything, including the most minute points of theology, it does give you a sense of invincibility. You think you are ready to take on the world. I certainly felt that way 30 years ago. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing for a young person to be confident. Life has a way of bringing us all down a few notches. Let a young person start dealing with real people with real problems, and he will discover that some of the thing he use to argue about in seminary, no one ever asks him about in real life.

I said that I don’t believe as much as I did when I was 25. Perhaps a better way to say it is that the circle of things that really matter to me is much smaller now. Life is too short to argue incessantly about everything. Have you own convictions, do what seems best to you, and we can agree to disagree on some secondary issues and all sleep well at night.

More than anything else, our generation of Christians needs to hear these words again. “Stand fast.”

I have come to rest my soul on a handful of biblical truths:

The Bible is true.
God is holy, just and good.
His mercies endure forever.
Jesus is Lord.
He blood cleanses us from every sin.
He rose from the dead on the third day.
He is now enthroned in heaven.
One day he will return to the earth.
The God who created me has a purpose for my life.
All things work together for good.
The Holy Spirit intercedes for me.

At the core of my faith is an unshakable belief in the sovereignty of God. He’s God and I’m not. He is sovereign over all the details of my life, and I can trust him completely even when those details seem to be spinning out of control. God knows what he is doing, and he is doing it.

Sometimes all we can do is dig in and hold on. And when trouble comes, sometimes that’s the best thing we can do. More than anything else, our generation of Christians needs to hear these words again. “Stand fast.” Remember what you have learned. Stand on the truth you already know. Take God at his word! There is no reason to quit or to give in to evil.

III. A Prayer We Need to Pray 

“May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word” (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17).

We come at last to the prayer of Paul for the Thessalonians. The context is crucial because the prayer flows directly from the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and from the command to stand firm. First, we must remember that God is the source of all power. He alone can help us in the time of trouble. All the resources of heaven are at our disposal. Second, remember what God has already done for us.

He loved us—that’s in the past when he gave us his Son.
He encouraged us—that’s in the present through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
He gives us hope—that’s in the future when we will share in his glory.

He has solved every problem by taking care of our past, our present and our future.

In light of all that, pray for two things:

Pray for an encouraged heart.
Pray for a stable heart.

When we are encouraged, we will face the trials of life with hope. “Cheerfulness ought to be the atmosphere you breathe, and if you believe that God loves you, you cannot but be happy” (Charles Haddon Spurgeon). When your heart is stabilized, you won’t be swayed back and forth by circumstances and emotional mood swings. The latest headlines won’t throw you for a loop one way or the other. The stable heart is fixed on the Lord and is not swaying to and fro. The mark of the stable heart is consistency. You are the same because Christ is the same no matter what happens around you.

The mark of the stable heart is consistency.

And the result of the prayer is wonderful. You are able to do every good work and to say every good word the Lord wants you to do and to say. Your life and your lips act in perfect harmony with the Lord.

Here’s the passage in a nutshell:

Since God has chosen you for salvation, stand fast amid all the trials of life, knowing that God will encourage you and make you strong on the inside so that your life will be filled with good words and good deeds.

It’s all there and it all flows together—doctrine, command, prayer. Here’s another way of looking at it:

You are greatly loved—Stand fast!
You were chosen by God—Stand fast!
You were called to salvation—Stand fast!
You believed the gospel—Stand fast!
You will one day share in Christ’s glory—Stand fast!
You have received God’s comfort—Stand fast!
You have good hope by grace—Stand fast!
You were established in every word and deed—Stand fast!

In a recent sermon John Piper said, “The universe exists so that we may live in a way that demonstrates that Jesus is more precious than life.” That truth does not answer all our questions, but it does provide the framework for an answer that will prove true and strong in the worst moments of life. When tragedy strikes, when life caves in, when your plans are dashed on the jagged rocks of reality, when you find yourself in a place you never wanted to be, that’s when you discover what you really believe. As long as things are going good, you don’t really know what you believe. It’s all theoretical. You discover your theology at midnight. Anyone can sing “Shout to the Lord” when life is good, you’ve got money in the bank, your marriage is strong, your kids are doing well, you’re happy in your job, you love your church, and all is right with the world. If with Paul and Silas you can sing praise to God at midnight in jail, then what you’ve got is real.

You discover your theology at midnight.

Not only will you discover what you believe in times of trouble, that’s also when the world discovers what you believe.

Either God is enough or he isn’t.
Either Jesus is more precious than life or he isn’t.

But the truth comes out, always. And in those moments, when you rest your weary soul on the God of the universe, when you cry out to Jesus and discover that he really is there after all, then you discover he was there all along, everything he said turns out to be true, and the people who watch you know that you really believe what you say you believe. And having seen the difference that Jesus makes in the worst moments of life, that’s when they want what you have.

Lord, you are so good. Your mercies endure forever. To you, O Lord, be all the honor, glory and praise in our good times and in our bad times. When we see clearly and when the way forward is confusing, in our doubts and through our tears, in our happy moments and when life tumbles, be glorified in us.

We thank you that you know what you are doing, and you are doing it. We are glad about that because many times we are clueless. We rest our weary souls on you, the Rock of Our Salvation. Give us confidence to believe that the God who started a good work in us will bring it to completion, and even today is bringing it to completion. So help us to stand fast, never moved, trusting in you, now and forevermore, until the day comes when we see Jesus face to face. Amen.

2008-05-10-Strength-for-the-Journey

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